That's a big problem, because peer review is supposed to establish a certain level of credibility for a published paper. It doesn't mean the study is perfect or that the conclusions the scientists have drawn are correct -- or even that most scientists will agree with them -- but it's meant to cut out anything too preposterous.
The 32 papers that seem to have benefited from positive reviews by these nonexistent peers are now being examined. If they're found lacking, they may be formally retracted. Hindawi publishes across a wide variety of subjects -- mostly in science, medicine, and tech -- and the company hasn't said what articles are being examined or what journals they came from.
This isn't the first time a journal has found evidence of puppet reviewers: In March, BioMed Central, which publishes 277 journals out of Britain, announced the retraction of 43 papers after discovering "fabricated" peer reviews and signs of a broader fake peer review ring affecting many more publications. In November, Retraction Watch founder Ivan Oransky wrote a feature on the phenomenon in Nature, explaining that -- at least at some journals -- software vulnerabilities make it disturbingly simple for unscrupulous scientists to play the system.
As any open-access journal -- one that makes published studies available for free instead of charging hefty subscription and access fees -- Hindawi charges a fee to authors for the publication of an article. This, some say, is murky territory, opening the door to models where scientists can essentially pay for publication instead of going through scrupulous peer review. But Hindawi is not thought to be one of those "pay to play" publication factories. Unfortunately, it's now apparent that even legitimate journals can unwittingly provide a platform for unethical scientists.
Fred Barbash contributed to this report.